I love a good spy caper, doubly so if I myself am playing the spy. When Safehouse ’77 came onto the immersive theater scene two years ago, it was an incredible twist on a traditional spy story that inspired audiences and performers alike. Now, with the long-awaited sequel Safehouse ‘82, creators and writers Nick Rheinwald-Jones and Katelyn Schiller are trying to take their timeless concept into the early ’80s, and to the next level.
The set-up is the same: Sharon is having a party and you’re invited, but not everything is what it seems. However, Safehouse ’82 assumes you already know the deal, in a sense. Sharon works for the CIA, and so now do you, having joined her ranks back in 1977. But where the party starts this time around is also where the similarities to the previous iteration of the show seem to end. While the original Safehouse ’77 was an innovative look at what would happen if an unsuspecting stranger (you) became embroiled in a clandestine CIA operation, the new Safehouse seems to focus more on solving puzzles over its nearly two hour run time than understanding character motivations, thus losing much of the human charm that made the original such a success.
Quiet conversations with intriguing performers are now replaced with frantic searches for ciphers, puzzles, and secret objects. And while this provides a perfect opportunity for escape room-lovers to flex their muscles, some of the narrative and warmth of the original show is lost with these additions. What made Safehouse ‘77 so special were those moments between the larger narrative – stolen seconds with the real people behind the hardened spy front – which feel excised from this installment.
The performance space is still stunning; the beautiful home that Rheinwald-Jones and production designer Danielle Levesque have transformed into a kitschy masterpiece still shines like its own character throughout the experience. Costume design from Briana Roecks is an especially welcome addition; she expertly dresses the performers in that quietly gauche aesthetic of the early ’80s that adds a period-appropriate cherry on top of the whole experience. That said, groups of twelve guests at a time feel a bit smushed together in some of the smaller rooms of the home, making it difficult to see the action and even to participate at times. Additionally, guests who haven’t attended the prior version may find themselves lost as to their purpose despite a lengthy expository scene from Sharon; a primer email or video might help onboard new attendees before the drinks and Chex-Mix start flowing at the event itself.
The cast remains strong, even with somewhat less to sink their teeth into this time around. Katie Rediger and Katelyn Schiller’s performances as Sharon and Sonya, respectively, are filled with strength and wisdom, lest we forget that the false premise of the original ’77 party was to champion women’s rights. Without a doubt: These women are strong beyond their means. Especially worth noting is the addition of Lauren Hayes (Cold War Lounge) to the cast as Margery, Sharon’s nervous and belabored assistant. Hayes, more than any other performer, conveys a seriousness and quiet confusion that ties together the spider’s web narrative; she is the perfect audience foil and her work here is expert level. Also deserving of praise is Rediger, who commands the direction of the plot with a cold, intense fury. She commits to a complexity within Sharon that is perhaps the most interesting mystery that unravels throughout the course of the evening.
What audiences will respond to most at Safehouse ’82 are the puzzles themselves, cleverly planned and executed by Rheinwald-Jones, Lyndsie Scoggin, and Schiller with notable consulting from Stashhouse creator Tommy Honton. It’s a real treat for fans of pen-and-paper espionage. The show has multiple potential endings based on the amount of clues that the audience unravels, allowing for a sense of urgency as each step is completed. Throughout the evening, I found myself alternately attempting to crack codes with Margery as she hunched over an early-era computer, floppy disk in hand, and later in the backyard digging up a pet cemetery with Max (Rheinwald-Jones), hoping against hope that the clue we sought wasn’t tucked inside a dead cat. Later on, Max ascends a rickety ladder into the attic to show us a video clue as we gave up from below him – an excellent use of the space in an unexpected way. Without a doubt, these puzzles are intriguing and complex, and will stimulate the senses of many a guest, but, despite this, they pull focus from the narrative of the evening and the backstory of the characters, making the overall experience fall somewhat flat. That said, there was a surprising moment in Safehouse ’82 that won’t be spoiled here, but genuinely shocked and delighted me – this team is fully capable of pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting guests and ripping it away with dramatic effect.
Safehouse ‘82 tends to struggle where its predecessor succeeded, but it’s not without its merits. Strong performances from a mostly female cast, tasks designed to engage the participants on multiple levels, and a carefully curated space to set the late Cold War Era tone make Safehouse ’82 an invigorating night out, if not a perfectly executed one. Safehouse ’82, despite its flaws, gives guests an opportunity to make their own story within an unsafe world, and that’s commendable. Everyone loves a chance to be a hero, even if the hero is a spy, and Safehouse ’82 certainly provides that opportunity – just be careful who you trust.
Safehouse ’82 has concluded its run, but follow them on Instagram and check their website for more information and upcoming shows. Check out our Event Guide for more immersive events throughout the year.